It’s midday in Fort Lauderdale and Luke Neal, 24, heads to a beachside coffee shop with two friends from South Carolina. He wears no mask — nor even carries one with him.
“I think I’m immune to COVID,” Neal says. “I have been everywhere and I haven’t gotten it.”
Neal says there is no way he will get a COVID vaccine. “Why would I?”
While older Floridians clamor for the vaccines that could prevent them from becoming severely ill and dying from COVID-19, young adults are indifferent, unconvinced the vaccines are necessary. They dismiss the urgency of getting vaccinated, rely heavily on peers and social media for vaccination advice — and seem unaware their rejection of the vaccine could lengthen the course of the pandemic.
Consider the role they play:
Young adults 25-34 make up the largest percentage of COVID cases in Florida.
With Florida reporting the highest number of the UK variant anywhere in the nation, people in this age group also make up most of those cases.
In Florida’s beach towns, young adults, including those on Spring Break, crowd together, unmasked and eager to socialize. And because they are out and about more, they are more likely to spread the virus while not showing symptoms.
Still, those same young adults tend to consider themselves invincible and, in the case of COVID-19, they are least likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.
On April 5, everyone 18 and up will be eligible to receive a vaccine in Florida. But don’t expect a rush to vaccination sites from 20-somethings.
“I’d rather dodge COVID than get the vaccine,” says Marsha Evans, a 29-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident. “I’m young and healthy and I’m not going to die from it.”
That indifference toward vaccination concerns Marissa Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida. “If our goal is to snuff out COVID as soon as possible because we don’t want variants to take deeper root,” she says, “we have to get everyone vaccinated.”
Young and indifferent
The Verywell Vaccine Sentiment Tracker, a bi-weekly measurement of 1,000 Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around COVID-19 and the vaccine, found vaccine rejection and hesitation remain high among young adults, with 47% of respondents under 30 saying they won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine compared with just 17% of those over 50.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel talked with more than three dozen young adults visiting or living in South Florida, attending college, or on Spring Break. While a handful said they would get the vaccine if it were convenient, most weigh the risk and reject vaccination — at least for now. Many are taking a wait-and-see approach while they live their close-to-normal lives.
Nick Myers, a 25-year-old Fort Lauderdale marketing assistant, says he goes to his office and hangs out with friends like before the pandemic. He sees no need to get vaccinated. He and his friends already have had COVID and were only mildly sick. He merely had the sniffles for a day. “Maybe I can get COVID again,” he said, “but I’m not worried about it.”
Levine said young adults have always shrugged off vaccines. She witnessed this during the H1N1 outbreak, even with young people were being hospitalized.
“At that age, there’s a sense of invincibility and a cavalier attitude about disease in general,” Levine said. “But the issue with COVID is deep. because they are carrying a huge burden of the disease already.
“From testing, we can tell that they are the largest group who get COVID, and we are probably underestimating how many do, because many are asymptomatic and less likely to be tested,” she said.
Jose Ramirez, 21, doesn’t think of himself as a potential coronavirus spreader. He arrived in South Florida with a group of 60 college students from Ohio. Ramirez has been going to bars and enjoying the nightlife. He says he doesn’t worry about getting the virus and probably won’t get the vaccine. However, he doesn’t like being forced to wear a mask in some places. “If [the vaccine] means I could get rid of the mask and never wear it again, then I’d consider it.”
Getting COVID under control
Public health experts say immunizing young adults — the largest spreaders of the virus — will be critical to emerging from the pandemic, especially as the highly contagious UK variant becomes the more dominent strain in the U.S.
“It’s not clear we are ever going to get to herd immunity,”said Joanna L. Drowos, associate chair of the Integrated Medical Science Department at Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine. “There are too many [young adults] willing to take the risk. They are just not worried about COVID.”
Still, there are exceptions.
Mia Joseph, 20, says she is well aware she can pass the virus to others unknowingly. She has been careful on campus, hangs out only in small groups and wears a mask. Joseph plans to get the vaccine to avoid infecting older family members. “I could really screw up their lives,” she said. “It will be more for their sake than mine.”
Convincing young skeptics
The outlook is mixed on whether the majority of young Floridians will get vaccinated, or simply continue to circulate the virus well into the future. It could come down to what they see and hear on Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok.
Verywell’s survey found social media is the biggest driver of COVID-19 vaccine information — and misinformation — among respondents who said they will not get a shot.
Kirk Nichols, 26, says he will check his Instagram to see whether his friends get the vaccine, and how it affects them. If he likes what he sees, he may get the vaccine too.
But 22-year-old Ryan Keener of Michigan says his age group might not get the real facts if they rely solely on social media.
“It’s kind of hard to dodge the [mis]information because it is so prevalent on social media,” Keener said. “I would rather believe if scientists with multiple degrees that have decades of experience that are telling me to get a vaccine over Kurt from Wisconsin who does construction.”
Levine said public health officials hear what young adults are saying, particularly their indifference, and recognize the race to get enough of Florida vaccinated before variants become dominant is not going to be easy.
“We can’t ignore this young age group,” she said. “We need to press but it’s already late in the process.”
Sun Sentinel reporter Arlene Bornstein contributed to this report.
Health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org